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How to Analyse a Film

In this article, you will find an extensive list of elements and questions to help you when analysing a film.

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A black and white photo of Frankenstein from a movie, pink flowers on top.
Frankenstein is a film classic.

Characteristics

Films are similar to novels or short stories in that they tell a story. They include the same genres: romantic, historical, detective, thriller, adventure, horror, and science fiction. However, films may also include sub-groups such as action, comedy, tragedy, westerns and war. The methods you use to analyse a film are closely related to those used to analyse literature; nevertheless, films are multimedial. They are visual media made for viewers. Films take command of more of our senses to bring out emotions and create special atmospheres and feelings.

Along with the literary elements such as plot, setting, characterisation, structure, and theme, which make up the text or screenplay, there are many different film techniques used to tell the story or narrative. Attention is paid to sound, music, lighting, camera angles, and editing. It is important to focus on how all the elements are used together in making a good film.

Like novel analysis, film analysis may seem like a mammoth task. It is impossible to look at every aspect of a film or novel, so narrow down your focus and choose a few things to focus on. It is often a good idea to have a clear thesis to start from, so that you avoid being overwhelmed by the amount of things it is possible to look at.

There are different types of film analysis. A semiotic analysis studies the symbols and imagery used in a film and what is achieved by using these devices. A narrative analysis examines story elements such as narrative structure, character, and plot. A cultural or historical analysis examines a film's relationship with culture, history, or society. Finally, we have mise-en-scène analysis, where the focus is on how a film is made: it studies camera angles, acting, set design, costumes etc. Do not worry about having to choose one type of analysis to write: It common for an analysis to be a combination of some or all of these types of analysis.

Below you will find lists of elements that can be studied in a film analysis.

Film contents

Film facts:
  • title of film
  • year of production
  • nationality
  • names of actors
  • name of director
Genre:
  • What main genre does the film belong to – romantic, historical, detective, thriller, adventure, horror, or science fiction?
  • What sub-grouping does the film belong to – action, comedy, tragedy, war or westerns?
Setting:
  • Setting refers to where and when the story takes place. Does the story take place in the present, the past, or the future?

  • What aspects of the setting are we made aware of? Geography, weather conditions, physical environment, time of day ...
  • Where are we in the opening scene?
Plot and structure:
  • What are the most important sequences?
  • How is the plot structured?
  • Is it linear, chronological, or is it presented through flashbacks?
  • Are there several plots running in parallel?
  • How is suspense built up?
  • Do any events foreshadow what is to come?
Conflict:
  • Conflict or tension is usually the heart of the film and is related to the main characters.
  • How would you describe the main conflict?
  • Is it internal where the character suffers inwardly?
  • Is it external, caused by the surroundings or environment?
Characterisation:

How are the characters described?

  • Through dialogue?
  • By the way they speak?
  • Physical appearance?
  • Thoughts and feelings?
  • Interaction – the way they act towards other characters?
  • Are they static characters who do not change?
  • Do they develop by the end of the story?
  • What qualities stand out?
  • Are they stereotypes?
  • Are the characters believable?
Narrator and point of view:
  • The narrator is the person telling the story. Is there a narrator in the film? Who?

  • Is the story told through an off-screen narrator, or is it told from the perspective of someone who is part of the action?
Imagery:

By imagery we mean the elements in the film that appeal to our senses or are used to create pictures in our minds. They may include:

  • symbols – when something stands not only for itself (its literal meaning), but also stands for something else (a figurative meaning). For instance the feather in the film Forrest Gump symbolizes his destiny.
  • Images that strongly evoke the idea of a smell, taste, or touch in the viewer. For example the images of melted chocolate in the film Chocolat from 2016.
Theme:
  • What are the universal ideas that shine through in the film?

Cinematic effects

Soundtrack:
  • Soundtrack refers to both dialogue and music, as well as all the other sounds in a film.
  • The soundtrack enhances the atmosphere of the film. What effect does the choice of music have? Does it suit the theme?
  • Are any particular sounds accentuated?
Use of the camera:
  • A camera shot is based on the camera’s distance from the object.
  • The four basic shots used in films are:

    • close-up: a very close shot where the camera lens focuses on some detail or the actor’s face.
    • medium shot: a shot where the camera lens picks up some background or the upper half of the actor.
    • full shot: a shot where the camera lens has full view of the actor.
    • long shot: shot taken at a distance from an object.
  • What camera shots can you identify in the film? How are they used?
  • A camera angle is how the camera is tilted while filming.

    • straight-on angle: the camera is at the same height as the object.
    • high angle: the camera is filming from above the object.
    • low angle: the camera is looking up at the object.
    • oblique angle: the camera is tilted sideways.
  • Does the way in which the camera is held say anything about the character?
Lighting:
  • Lighting focuses the audience’s attention on the main character or object in a film.
  • It also sets the mood or atmosphere.
  • While high-key lighting is bright and illuminating, low-key lighting is darker with a lot of shadows.
  • What special lighting effects are used during the most important scenes?
  • Filters are often used to soften and reduce harsh contrasts. They can also be used to eliminate haze, ultraviolet light, or glare from water when shooting outside.
  • Using colours like red and orange can be used to enhance the feeling of a sunset.
  • Can you find any examples where a filter has been used in the film?
  • What effect did using a filter have on the scene?
  • What colours are most dominant?
Editing:
  • Editing is the way in which a film editor, together with the director, cuts and assembles the scenes. The way the scenes are joined together creates the rhythm of the motion picture. Scenes can be long and drawn out or short and choppy.
  • Can you see a pattern in how the scenes are cut?
  • How would you describe the pace/tempo of the film?

Writing your analysis

When analysing films for school work or projects, you use as many of the elements above as you feel is necessary to comprehensively analyse the film. Try to think of the film as a whole and how the elements mentioned above work together to bring out the main message of the film.

Last updated 11/27/2018
Text: Carol Dwankowski and Tone Hesjedal (CC BY-SA)

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